On September 18th, Russians will go to the polls to elect a new parliament that no one seems to care about. This electoral ritual has already been widely condemned as an authoritarian farce, with the new legislature bound to be just as rubber-stamped as before. The usual analysis of the Russian Duma is one of weakness and unimportance, with no space for democratic debate and an institution devoid of meaningful power. The articles have already started streaming in – and will only grow more common as the date approaches – that tell us one way or another how this election is a façade, or will lead to no change, or is just another controlled manipulation by the ever-so-smart Putin regime. Certainly we should not be expecting some sort of miraculous liberal revolution suddenly pouring onto the streets, and the 2018 presidential elections will force far harder public choices for Mr. Putin himself. Yet we should not be so flippant in dismissing either the September election or the new legislature its winners will sit in.
This election marks five years since the start of a particularly turbulent period of Russian political history. The 2011 parliamentary elections were distinguished by widespread fraud, and perceptions of this subterfuge sparked an unprecedented mobilization of voters disillusioned with the regime and its failure to deal with corruption, economic stagnation, and unresponsive institutions. Even with fraud, the 2011 election was an embarrassment for the ruling United Russia party, barely managing to hold on to a simple majority in the Duma. Uniting disaffected liberals, leftists, and nationalists for a few brief months, the post-election protests rallied tens of thousands to the streets in Moscow and Saint-Petersburg and showed a side of the public not seen since the 1990s. These protests failed to spread further, however, and soon the victorious regime took a turn for the more overtly authoritarian. Repression of the protest organizers and the wider world of Russian opposition was coupled with an ideological move towards an ill-defined, but quite popular anti-Western conservatism. And then Ukraine happened, throwing everything only further into an unpredictable tumult.
The Russia of the post-2011 election has been a very different beast than the years of Putin’s first two terms or the formal interregnum of the Medvedev administration. In the span of five years, the country has passed laws classifying NGOs as ‘foreign agents,’ banned the adoption of orphans by US citizens, criminalized the ‘propaganda of non-traditional [i.e. homosexual] relations’ to minors, annexed Crimea, invaded eastern Ukraine, been sanctioned by the West, been kicked out of the G8, intervened in Syria, seen its currency devalued and its state budget slashed, among many other profound events. Just in the last few months, Putin called for the creation of a de facto praetorian guard to ensure internal order outside of normal military channels and the Duma passed a package of laws that forced internet and mobile service providers to archive every communication and piece of sent data for three years. Russia is more authoritarian and more militant, yet with fewer allies, resources, and goodwill than in many years. All the while decision-making has further shrunk to the immediate informal circle around Putin, whose truly impressive popularity figures are awkwardly juxtaposed with increasing popular pessimism about corruption, the economy, and the future direction of the country. In a sense, the September 2016 elections are thus a nice way to mark how much has changed over a single five-year period in the country, and the first national-level effort at finding out exactly what it was that changed.
There are two major reasons why we should treat these elections seriously as outside observers. Firstly, there is a burgeoning field of scholarship in political science that suggests elections in autocracies can be quite consequential. This literature is widely varied, showing that elections can serve to consolidate but other times undermine autocracies, with the formal degree of electoral competitiveness at the election’s outset sometimes not a particularly helpful indicator.
Elections are mobilizing instances, and the physical act of going out and voting for the autocrat or his/her party can have powerful psychological effects, enforcing the feeling that the regime is inevitable and strong, even despite objective weaknesses. Elections are a powerful means to assess the effectiveness of regional and local elites – those who will actually be ensuring the vote goes according to plan. Thus, regions which perform poorly for the ruling party often see post-election elite-level changes – governors resigning, public funds awarded or taken away, and so on. Regular elections are often signaling mechanisms as well, used in authoritarian regimes to gain or maintain an appearance of democratic legitimacy for external consumption – to appease international aid donors or broadly conform to international norms. Although in some ways this motivation is less relevant to Russia, the keeping up appearances of electoral integrity has historically been a goal of the regime. Finally, in a situation when an election goes poorly for the regime – as it did in 2011 – this can send a powerful signal that the regime needs to change course, while one that goes well is a good way to underscore unity among the regime’s loyalists. For these reasons and more, we should understand that these elections can have profound impacts.
This leads us to the second reason why we should pay attention to Russia’s fall vote. Elections in authoritarian regimes rarely just happen. They may be stage-managed, controlled, manipulated, defrauded, or otherwise rendered less than democratic, but all of this – and the degree of it – is an active choice by the regime. Sometimes that choice is preordained due to weak regime capacity for coercion and manipulation (see Ukraine under Viktor Yanukovych) or constricted because of relatively liberal norms among autocratic elites (see Singapore’s fairly mild handling of the opposition and encouragement for participation). The upcoming Russian elections are well understood by the highest elites in the regime to be important even if they would prefer them to go off without a hitch.
Evidence for Russian elites treating these elections seriously comes from no less a figure than President Vladimir Putin himself. On several occasions, Putin has talked directly about the need for a new and functioning Duma. He spoke in person to a plenary session of parliament ahead of its dismissal, reiterating the importance of the institution. One can read this all as pro forma nonsense and simply going through the motions, but a peculiar theme keeps emerging each time Putin or people from the Presidential Administration talk about the election. Each time, they speak of new blood and a fresh approach to politics that the upcoming elections are supposed to provide.
This rhetorical change – Putin rarely emphasizes the power of representative institutions (even as hollowed-out as the Duma) over presidential authority or that of the amorphous state/bureaucracy – has been accompanied by action. The ruling party, United Russia, held pseudo-primaries in which many incumbents failed to qualify, lost their race in winner-take-all single-member district races, or were placed too low in preference for proportional representation party lists to be guaranteed seats. The end result will be a notable culling of current United Russia MPs from the next Duma. The party’s primaries further drove home the point of a qualitative change in the nature of this next generation of ruling party parliamentarians – out of 225 United Russia candidates in the single-member district side of elections, only 18 will have ‘few or no ties’ to their respective region, while the vast majority will either be formerly deputies to regional legislatures, officials from regional governments, or well-known local businessmen and other personalities. This is a stark change compared to the last several Duma convocations where regional loyalties were of little importance.
Russian political scientist Nikolai Petrov has written on the peculiar position the Russian regime faces – exceedingly popular because of an extended post-Crimea delirium of victory, but one whose legitimacy is over-personalized around Putin-as-conqueror (to the Russia-watchers, a ‘gatherer of the Russian lands’ analogy could be appropriate here). He identifies the return from ‘military-legitimacy’ to ‘electoral-legitimacy’ as central to current elite thinking inside the regime. The fear is that the president’s extraordinary popularity will not last forever, and that a new bulwark of publicly accepted institutions has to come back into view, especially in light of assumed economic austerity measures in the near future. Having a ‘believable’ scapegoat for such painful measures is widely seen as necessary, even given widespread cynicism about decision-making in the system. Noting the persistent effort by high-tier Russian elites to emphasize the Duma elections as important and legitimate, the surprise appointment of a liberal critic Ella Pamfilova of the regime to head the Central Electoral Commission, and the personal interventions of Putin in enforcing the value of a fresh-faced Duma corps of loyal MPs, it is clear that these upcoming September elections are seen as critically important for long-term stability, and a great deal of resources is being brought to bear to ensure they go off without a hitch and with the intended result.
All of these efforts at putting up appearances of competition and electoral rigor, as well as rejuvenating the cadre ranks of ruling party parliamentarians with ‘fresh faces’ obviously do not signal a movement towards actual democratization, nor necessarily even a new round of substantive liberalization. In all likelihood, decisions on key issues will remain the prerogative of a poorly understood small clique surrounding the president, while the ministries stutter along and the parliament engages in schizophrenic activity. The parliament itself will likely be even more dominated by United Russia than before (although perhaps more riven with faction), and we could see the total collapse of support for some of the loyalist ‘opposition’ parties that have long been stalwarts of the regime. Yet the sophistication of the managed political system Putin once ruled over has fallen by the wayside, all the while the legislative organ of the country has been more active than ever. Reestablishing a post-2011 normalcy after five years of authoritarian consolidation, legislatively hyperactive conservative reactionism, and international isolation is a tall order, and the September elections will be the first institutionalized test of how well the regime has fared.
Julian G. Waller is a fourth-year Ph.D student at George Washington University whose research focuses on formal political institutions in hybrid regimes and electoral authoritarianism with a regional interest in post-communist Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet space.
Image Source: RT